Category Archives: PortraitX

Hollywood lighting for photographers

Hollywood lighting for drama and a cinematic look

What is Hollywood Lighting?

“Hollywood lighting” is an expression photographers use to describe the cinematic style of lighting that was used in the “good old days” of classic black and white films, and “film noir”.

I think it comes down to controlling light and shadow – both being equally important. The lighting is very stylish, and tends towards a steep tonal curve (ie deep blacks and bright whites).

I like watching films like “Casablanca” and “The Third Man” for see inspirational Hollywood lighting.

It is my personal view that any photographer who cares about the quality of his or her work should constantly be on the lookout for inspiration. It is not a question of “copying”, but trying to emulate a style that you have seen. There is a lot to be learnt by looking at the work of others.

Lighting for film versus lighting for still photography

Film (and video) requires continuous lighting – obviously!

But because still photographers capture still images, so we have a luxury of choice. We can opt for continuous lighting or flash. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and there is a large choice of technologies available.

Some photographers who want to specialise in “Hollywood lighting” invest heavily in specialist lighting. But most phtoographers who wants to emulate this style will probably want to use equipment they already own.

I am going to describe a method whereby a photographer who uses studio flash can emulate Hollywood lighting very simply. The trick is to use reflective dishes fitted with grids. Incidentally, this is one of the very first things I learned from Damian McGillicuddy, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. I have learnt a great deal over the years from this thoroughly decent chap.

Using grids to emulate fresnel lighting

In the classic days of black and white Hollywood films, fresnel lenses (pronounced fray-nel) were often used to control the spread of light. Fresnel lenses act by collimating light produced by a bulb. Let me explain that; light spreads out in all directions from a bulb, but if the emitted light goes through a lens that makes the light rays travel parallel to each other, that is collimated light.

A grid performs a very similar effect. It doesn’t achieve it by changing the direction of the light, but by restricting the amount it can spread out. It does this by forcing the light through small tubes – the grid. Grids vary – some restrict the spread of light much more than others.

The models in these photos were lit using a 21cm Elinchrom refector dish fitted with a grid. If you aren’t a professional photographer and you follow that link, you will probably be surprised by how much these things cost; “that much for just that?” But grids are not that easy to manufacture. Still, the cost is a small fraction of what you have to pay for proper fresnel ligthing systems.

“Classic” black and white photography

It wasn’t just film studios that used “Hollywood lighting”. Many portrait photographers have used, and even specialised, in this style of lighting. A quick Google search will pull out many examples.

That is so cool! I just did a Google search to verify my last sentence, and was delighted to see six of my own images appear in the search results. Result!

Hollywood lighting, Yulia Volosnikova, Luke Clampitt, location photo shoot

Luke Clampitt and Yulia Volosnikova as Hollywood stars

Hollywood lighting, Yulia Volosnikova, beauty photography

Yulia Volosnikova transformed into Hollywood star by Hollywood lighting

Hollywood lighting, Yulia Volosnikova, beauty photography

“Hollywood star” Yulia Volosnikova

Using Hollywood Lighting to sculpt faces

Because Hollywood lighting is collimated – at least to a degree – it is very “hard”. That means it creates relatively hard edges to shadows. This lighting flatter thin faces, but can be very unflattering to people who have round faces.

Furthermore, because Hollywood lighting is conducive to area of strong shadow, it can help an experienced photographer flatter certain types of subjects.

Consider the image of Yulia Volosnikova (above). I have deliberately shot her as a “Hollywood star”. Let us briefly look at the important points;

1. I have used a main key light on her face to flatter. The position of the light source relative to the model is critical. Notice the strong catch lights in Yulia’s eyes, and consider how they contribute to the image. The main key light was an Ilux Summit 600 fitted with an Elinchrom 21cm dish plus grid.

2. There is a rim light coming from behind Yulia, to the right as we look at her. This defines her left should, and also her right cheek, neck and throat. The position of this light also is critical. (By “critical” I do not mean there is only one exactly correct position, but rather that small changes in position cause major changes in the effect the light has on the model). this light was provided by a speedlight.

3. While I was shooting this series of images, in this location, I also had a fill light pointing at the model, behind the photographer’s right shoulder. This light was turned off for this particular image. The intensity of the fill light can be adjusted to change the darkness of the shadows.

4. One of the nice things about modern digital cameras is you can inspect the photographs you have just taken on the back of your camera. Looking at Yulia’s images, I decided I need to shine more light on her hair, from both sides. I acheived this using two more speedlights, one on each side of Yulia’s head. It was important that the light from these did not spread out and ruin the shadows elsewhere on Yulia. I found I could achieve this simply by using the speedlights withour any lighting modifiers.

In summary; the above photo of Yulia was captured using FOUR lights;
(a) main key light
(b) rim light
(c and d) two speedlights on either side of her head.

Sultry “Hollywood starlet” Serena

PortraitX, Hollywood lighting, Samantha Akasha Beck, film noir

PortraitX organiser and guru Samantha Akasha Beck, photographed in “film noir” style

Hollywood lighting, film noir, Yulia Volosnikova

“Hollywood star” Yulia Volosnikova with “Magician and Illusionist” Marcus Phoenix Godfrey



Yulia Volosnikova, make up by Rhian Gillah
Serena Fox (black silky dress), make up by Jade Memphis Hunt
Samantha Akasha Beck (filing cabinet), I think did her own make up
Luke Clampitt
Marcus Phoenix Godfrey (magician)

I am grateful to Empress Design and Print for the location, and PortraitX for organising the shoot.

One to one photo tutoring

Are you a budding photographer who would like to get some personal one to one tuition on a PortraitX photo shoot? If you are then contact me.

Behind the scenes (BTS) video

Video captured and edited by Matt Tress of Shinzou Media

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"Pandora's Box" fantasy photo shoot, Ian Trayner photographer, Yollanda Musa model

Fantasy photo shoot – Pandora’s Box

Fantasy photo shoot with PortraitX and Yollanda Musa

This was a fantasy photo shoot shot under the auspices of PortraitX. The aim was to shoot on location and capture the theme “Pandora’s Box”, with total freedom to re-interpret that story. So, with apologies to the ancient Greeks, this is my own personal version of the story of Pandora’s box.

Pandora’s Box

Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful young princess named Pandora. She had an uncle who was a powerful magician. He was feared by the people and it was rumoured he had a box that contained devastation. But he loved Pandora, and she loved him.

It came to pass that Pandora’s uncle died, and one day Pandora found herself in his quarters, admiring all the curious and strange artefacts.

One in particular drew her eye; it was a beautiful small box. It fascinated Pandora, so she took it into the castle grounds.

“Surely this box can’t contain anything terrible”, she said to herself. “It is so small, and so beautiful!”

Filled with curiousity, she opened the lid… just a fraction. She peered in, and felt a strange floating sensation, and a feeling of intoxication. She was captivated by a mystical green light, compelling her to open the box fully.

Darkness jumped out and time itself became a chaotic blur…

"Pandora's Box" fantasy photo shoot, Ian Trayner photographer, Yollanda Musa model"Pandora's Box" fantasy photo shoot, Ian Trayner photographer, Yollanda Musa model"Pandora's Box" fantasy photo shoot, Ian Trayner photographer, Yollanda Musa model"Pandora's Box" fantasy photo shoot, Ian Trayner photographer, Yollanda Musa model

"Pandora's Box" fantasy photo shoot, Ian Trayner photographer, Yollanda Musa model

Darkness jumped out and time itself became a chaotic blur…

Photography methods

I used off camera flash with natural daylight. Shooting was a little tricky, because there was a bright sun and many small clouds, and the sun kept going behind the clouds.

When Yollanda was sitting on the tree trunk, the sun was behind her (at about 10’o’clock if the camera is at 6’o’clock) and she was illuminated from the right (her front) using a portable flash. This was a 600W battery powered head fitted with a soft box.

The green light shining out from the box was accomplished using two speedlights with green filters. I found that a single speedlight was not sufficient. I also took Yollanda as deep under the weeping willow tree as I could, so the ambient light was as low as possible. The important thing to know when you use coloured filters, is that the brighter the flash, the less it is coloured by the filter. (This is not intuitive until you think about it, then it makes perfect sense). So I used two speedlights, both set at minimum power output, triggered wirelessly using a radio transmitter.

As always when using flash, you are effectively superimposing two exposures in one image; one is the image that is recorded by the ambient light, and the other is the image recorded from the flash. One image. Two superimposed exposures to give a final net exposure. The flash exposure is dictated by the power from the flash and the aperture. The ambient exposure is dictated by the aperture and the shutter speed (both are also affected by the ISO obviously).

Shooting “Darkness”

In the story, when the character “Darkness”  jumps out of the box, I wanted a long exposure in order to show movement, but I also wanted the scene to appear darker overall. The camera was mounted on a tripod to keep it still, and the flash was set to “rear sync”. That means the flash fired at the end of the exposure, not at the beginning. We had to practice quite a bit to get it right, and technically it was quite challenging.

Firstly I had to find an exposure that was long enough to fit in all the action. The image here was exposed for 1.3 seconds! That gives Marcus (who played “Darkness”) enough time to be recorded at his starting position, and then move to his final position before the flash fires. In between he appears as a blur.

But it was a very bright day, so how was I going to avoid overexposing the image? The answer was to use an aperture of F22 plus a 3 stop ND (neutral density) filter. A 3 stop filter reduces the amount of light getting through by 3 stops, that is to say it blocks 7/8 of the light getting through.

So far so good. But could I get the flash bright enough to capture an image at F22 with a 3 stop filter? That is to say, the amount of light has to be sufficient for whatever is 3 stops brighter than F22! I just managed to get away with it, using two 600W flash heads, both fitted with small reflector dishes, and both as close to Marcus’s final position as I could get them. They are just out of shot to the right.

Poor old Marcus, not only did he have to do his leaping and grimacing until we got it right, he also had to look in the direction of 1200W of light flashing in his eyes! But he did an amazing job.

I also like the effect that a 1.3 second exposure has on the smoke, and it was this that suggested that time itself became blurred and chaotic with Darkness jumps out of the box, as stated in the storyline.


Models: Yollanda Musa and Marcus Phoenix Godfrey
Make up: Shahida MUA
Styling: Akasha Asylum

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Ian Trayner, fashion shoot, release the Kraken

Fashion photo shoot “release the Kraken”

I want to share some images I captured at a recent fashion photo shoot. The shoot was organised by PortraitX, and it involved something like 4 make up artists, 12 models and 16 photographers!

Fashion photo shoot on the south coast

As you can see in my photos, we were blessed with good weather. It was a beautiful warm day, and the sky was a superb deep blue with variable cloud cover. Sometimes there were “very expressive” whispy clouds, which added to the images. A healthy wind was blowing, which was very pleasant because it was a hot day. However the wind played merry jingo with the models’ hair!

It was a superb day for me, and I came away with a healthy set of images. I will probably share more of them in future blog posts.

Selected photographs

One of my main aims was to capture an image of a mermaid being dragged from the sea in a net. The lovely Caitlin Barnes-Davis was the mermaid, and she was caught by “The God of the Sea”, played by Marcus Godfrey.

fashion photo shoot, PortraitX, Ian Traynerfashion photo shoot, PortraitX, Ian Trayner fashion photo shoot, PortraitX, Ian Trayner fashion photo shoot, PortraitX, Ian Traynerfashion photo shoot, PortraitX, Ian Traynerfashion photo shoot, PortraitX, Ian Traynerfashion photo shoot, PortraitX, Ian Trayner

Photography methods:

Fashion photo shoots organised by PortraitX are always an opportunity, and a challenge. A huge amount of organisation goes into these shoots, but once on location, it is up to the photographers to think on their feet. We may have some ideas up our sleeves, but we have to adapt to local conditions to put them into practice.

Using only natural light:

My photos of Marcus and Akasha (the Kraken) were taken using only natural light, and you can see how I used the sunlight to my advantage. Even in a beautiful setting like this, I believe the direction and quality of the light is the most important factor to consider. I used a polarising filter to increase colour saturation in general, and of the sky in particular. I also added a bit of “clarity” in post production to make the clouds stand out more.

Supplementing natural light with flash:

I added a touch of flash to the portraits of Caitlin and Isabella sitting on the rocks.  The sun is coming at them from behind, over their left shoulders, and I wanted to bring more light into their faces. But I also wanted to retain a fairly natural look, so I used a soft box, and I adjusted the brightness to give a gentle and natural effect.

I used a much “harder” flash, with a small reflector dish, to throw extra light on Caitlin when she was struggling in the fishing net. This is because she is the main feature in those photos, and I wanted to draw the eyes to Caitlin. As always, the direction of the light is critical. I also used Marcus’s arm and the line of the net to help draw the eye to the stricken mermaid. The sea and the distant rocks provide lines that draw the eye towards Caitlin, but I did have to be careful that the horizon didn’t go through her face any higher than it is.

In the close up photo of Caitlin struggling in the fishing net, I lengthened her canine teeth in post production. I also overlaid scales from a rainbow trout on her skin. It seems a shame to transform this beauty into a scaly demon-like creature, but “so it goes”!


People who contributed to this set of images from this fashion photo shoot are;

Caitlin Barnes-Davis is our beautiful mermaid. Her make up was done by Samantha Beck. And the mermaid costume was made and supplied by Lunas Creations.

I have included a “behind the scenes” photo of Caitlin with Isabella Aurora Branco, who was cast as a baby mermaid. Isabella’s make up was done by Bryanna Angel Allen.

Akasha Asylum is the Kraken. The Kraken costume designed and made by Lunas Creations.

Marcus Godfrey is the “God of the Sea”.
His extremely impressive make up (or should that be “special effects”) were done by Katie Johnson.

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